Craig Gordon insists he is still Celtic's best keeper
In a career almost ended prematurely by a two-year injury lay-off, Craig Gordon has certainly overcome bigger challenges than the one currently facing him at Celtic.
But there is little doubt that Brendan Rodgers’ recruitment of Dorus de Vries has placed Gordon’s status as first-choice goalkeeper for the Scottish champions under serious threat.
With Celtic now on the verge of securing Champions League group stage football for the first time in three years, the timing could not be more ominous for Gordon. Ever since his first attempt in the qualifiers with Hearts back in 2006, the 33-year-old has held an as yet unfulfilled ambition to play in the proper phase of European football’s elite club competition.
“That would be pretty hard to take,” is Gordon’s blunt assessment of the prospect of missing out again this season with Celtic, who will take a healthy 5-2 lead into the second leg of their play-off round tie against Hapoel Beer-Sheva in Israel next Tuesday night.
But the Scotland international is equally forthright in his insistence he can retain the No 1 position ahead of De Vries and meet the demands manager Rodgers places on his goalkeepers.
De Vries, who excelled under Rodgers at Swansea City, has been lauded by the Irishman for his ability with the ball at his feet in a philosophy of playing possession football all over the pitch. The perception is that Gordon is regarded as less competent in that aspect of the game, with the situation at Celtic perhaps mirroring the one currently faced by England goalkeeper Joe Hart, who has lost his place at Manchester City under new coach Pep Guardiola for the same reason.
Unsurprisingly, Gordon disagrees with any suggestion he cannot adapt to Rodgers’ style of play and has stated his readiness to meet the challenge posed by De Vries head-on.
“I don’t feel under pressure because of it, I just go out there and play,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. The manager will make that call.
“I have to go out there, play my game, do as well as I can and play the way the manager wants the team to play. If I can do that and play well, I will stay in the team. Simple as that.
“I think I did alright with the way he wants to play against Hapoel on Wednesday night. I might even claim an assist for one of the goals.
“That is something we are looking to do and we are working on it in training. I feel as if I am becoming more and more comfortable with it.
“To a degree, I was asked to do that before under the previous manager [Ronny Deila]. This is taking it a step further and it is slightly different in the way it is set up. But I definitely feel I can cope with it and do that job.
“The goalkeeping position has changed in the time I have been in the game and you have to adapt to stay at the top.
“I certainly feel as if I can do it. It has been a step up this season in terms of getting involved with the outfield players but it is something I feel I can do, given the time and confidence in me to go out and do it.
“There are still teams who will play more long balls and want their goalkeepers to kick it into areas.
“But if you are at one of the bigger teams wanting to dominate possession, then it is something you are going to have to be able to do.
“I’ve not spoken to the manager about it since Dorus signed. I just went out and trained as hard as I could this week to show I’m the one who should continue in goal.
“I have spoken to Dorus a couple of times. He has been back doing a little bit of light training after the injury he picked up in his last game for Nottingham Forest. I would probably have played against him when he was at Dunfermline and I was with Hearts. We both left the same summer to go down south.
“It is just normal for a goalkeeper when someone else in your position joins your club. I have had it before. It is part of football.
“You just have to get on with it, go out and train as well you can and show that you are the best option for the job. I think we can work well together in training to push each other. But there is only one place at the end of the week for the game. That is just the goalkeeping position.
“I hope that it’s me and I can continue to play in this team this season, because it looks like a very exciting team to play in.”
Amid the justified satisfaction in the Celtic camp over the ultimately convincing nature of their first-leg win against Hapoel, the concession of two second-half goals which temporarily reduced the lead to 3-2 was an obvious concern.
“There is a slight tinge of disappointment about that,” added Gordon, who has kept just five clean sheets in his 27 European appearances for the club so far. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot getting caught on the counter at the start of the second half and then they got another one off the back of it when we were still clearing our heads.
“We are only at half-time in this tie. We are still wary that they have two away goals.
“We will probably have to defend a little bit better in Israel than we did in the first leg. But in saying that, we didn’t give up a great deal of chances.
“There is always a risk when you are forcing the game like we did on Wednesday, but I think it will be a different type of match over there.”